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The Invention of Net Neutrality

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, September 21 2009

Right at this very moment, Federal Communications chair Julius Genachowski is appearing at Brookings to announce that the Obama-era FCC will be taking a more aggressive approach to defending net neutrality principles. "The rise of serious challenges to the free and open Internet puts us at a crossroads," reads Genachowski's scripted remarks. The Obama-era agency's first substantive move on neutrality will be to codify former chair Michael Powell's "Four Freedoms" as commission rules, as well as to add a two-part Genachowski addendum: Internet service providers will be prevented from discriminating against particular content or applications other than for the purpose of reasonable network management, and they must be fully transparent about whatever it is they do do that falls under the "network management" loophole. And what's a revolution in telecom policy without a micro-site to commemorate the event? Nothing, that's what. And so the FCC is also announcing today the launch of OpenInternet.gov as a hub for push for a free and open Internet.

What's amazing, on this day, is to take a look back at what a coup the mainstreaming of "net neutrality" as a political virtue truly is for the online left -- the netroots, if you will. Whatever the constructive equivalent of a "blog scalp" is, this is it. Network neutrality has gone from an esoteric intra-industry battle to the cornerstone of what progressive technology policy looks like. The concept has long roots in the "common carrier" idea that the best, most useful, and most sustainable communications networks are one where the network should be open to having things attached to it, like modems. And the rise of "net neutrality" as a particular idea, though, goes back to Tim Wu's 2003 paper in the Journal of Telecommunications and High Technology Law. But the concept didn't really take root until 2006, when, for supporters, there was a happy confluence of events. The Brand X case created a rallying point, and as the '08 presidential race heated up, there was a desire amongst Democratic candidates to win the surging netroots' favor (or at least not tick them off too badly). Embrace of net neutrality was a way to prove technologist bona fides at the time where Washington was just beginning to cotton to the Internet. Free Press' Save the Internet coalition coalesced the momentum around neutrality -- including a sprinkling of conservative voices, and the expectation became that Democratic candidates would come out with a pro-neutrality declaration, as Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Bill Richardson, Mark Warner and others duly did.

As the net neutrality battle heated up, bloggers, loosely organized, found themselves going up against and besting the old established players in the industry. In one particularly memorable episode, MyDD's Matt Stoller went after Mike McCurry, the ultimate Washington insider who was picking up a paycheck as a front man for Hands Off the Internet, a telecom industry front group. Stoller, blogger, eviscerated McCurry, the former White House press secretary, on the Huffington Post and elsewhere online. McCurry skulked away from the issue. Then came the fatted calf that was Ted Stevens' "series of tubes," fodder for a million mocking remarks. As a question of technology, "net neutrality" has never been as black and white as advocates have sold it. But the netroots and allies have done a remarkable job of turning it into a political issue -- and, as we see with Genachowski's announcement this morning, a proxy for progressive communications policy in the age of Obama.

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